In the late 1970s Paul Samuelson drafted the outline of a paper, never published, with a critical assessment of the theoretical innovations of postwar development economics. He found it a “vital” but essentially “not tractable” subject, with a “voluminous” and “repetitive” literature. This article discusses how that assessment fits in Samuelson’s published writings on economic development, throughout several editions of his textbook Economics, and in papers he wrote before and after that assessment. Increasing returns posed a main analytical hurdle, together with the elusive attempt to provide “laws of motion” of economic development. Samuelson’s notion of “tractability” may be traced back to Peter Medawar’s well-known definition of science as the “art of the soluble.”

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